Five Notable Releases of the Week (5/13/16)
May has been an especially stacked month for new music (and it will continue to be). Like last week, there are certainly more than five albums worth checking out this week, and a few of this week's releases are some of the very best albums I've heard all year.
Check out my five picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
I’ll get to Radiohead and James Blake in a minute, but first I want to talk about my personal favorite album of this week, one that isn't dominating the "conversation" right now. Kvelertak's 2010 s/t debut and 2013 followup Meir already established them as one of the most fun and original modern metal bands, and Nattesferd is at least as good as those, if not their strongest yet. It's not every day that an individual record brings together the sounds Kvelertak bring together; their first two albums sounded like all your old Zeppelin, Sabbath, Metallica, AC/DC, Ramones and Motorhead tapes in a blender with black metal's vocals, hardcore's speed, and prog's embellishments. But you could usually pick out where they all came from. The solo on "Månelyst" sounded right off Master of Puppets. The main riff of "Evig Vandrar" took its cues from "Over the Hills and Far Away." So on and so forth. But on Nattesferd, with the exception of "1985" (an obvious ode to Van Halen), the only band that makes sense to namedrop is Kvelertak themselves. They're still using that same blender, but this time the sounds are fused together so seamlessly that you can't immediately tell where they came from. Take my favorite moment on the record, the riff at 2:37 on "Berserkr." It's simultaneously as rockin' as Page or Iommi, as catchy as a Weezer solo, and as melodically complex as a Beatles harmony. And that's just like, one 50 second block of this record.
I could go on about how few rock bands right now are this original, but even less are while also sounding this fun. It's a never-ending tug-of-war when you're talking about that stuff with regards to rock and roll. The fun stuff gets too simple and you need a heady band like Godspeed You! Black Emperor to step in. Then bands like that get too pretentious and nothing feels better than some good old three-chord punk. With Kvelertak, you don't have to pick. This record is a fucking blast to listen to. Putting it on is committing to 47 minutes of air guitar, table drumming, and a sore neck tomorrow morning from all the headbanging. I'd recommend blasting it while driving but I do not endorse breaking the speed limit and I can't promise you'll be able to control yourself. This thing is the kind of pure thrill that reminds me why I fell in love with rock and roll in the first place. It’s possible you won’t experience that same thrill if you don’t like screamed vocals at all, or if you’re a black/death metal purist and find it too poppy. But if you just dig rock music in all its many forms, then damn was this record written for you.
The stakes for a new album are way higher when you're Radiohead. People are still hating on their last album The King of Limbs five years later, but I'd wager that they'd be freaking out if that was a band's debut, or if fellow '90s rock survivors Smashing Pumpkins or Weezer could produce anything that good. So it's hard to think about A Moon Shaped Pool without jumping to extreme conclusions. I've already seen the social media peanut gallery call it both their best album since Kid A and a reminder that they already peaked years ago. But this is a band who has already proved that they have a rare type of longevity, and it feels unfair to come up with those kinds of verdicts this soon. It's definitely a strong album, one that's easy to give repeated listens to. One thing I do know right off the bat, is that it surprises me a lot less than The King of Limbs.
The couple songs that do surprise me a bit are the acoustic guitar-led "Desert Island Disk" and "The Numbers." Not that Radiohead have never had acoustic songs (obviously), but they don't usually get as earthy and American-sounding as they do on those two. The former is closer to the folk revival of Ryley Walker than to "Fake Plastic Trees" or "Karma Police." Those two aren't indicative of how the rest of the album sounds. Like a lot of Radiohead albums, the whole thing is pretty all over the place, yet they manage to make it sound cohesive. Opener (and recent single) "Burn the Witch" has Thom backed almost entirely by orchestral arrangements. "Ful Stop" is closer to the rhythmic, electronic music-inspired sounds of TKOL or Kid A. "Glass Eyes" is another orchestral song, but a much softer, more melancholic one. "Present Tense" is about as classic-Radiohead as it gets, led by a guitar arpeggio that'd feel right at home on either OK Computer or In Rainbows. And the much-talked-about closer "True Love Waits" is a reworked version of a song that's been floating around Radiohead setlists and live albums for over two decades, which makes for a brilliant finale to this album. To go back to what I said earlier about TKOL and the Pumpkins/Weezer, there isn't a popular '90s rock band around still making music as forward-thinking and instantly-timeless as Radiohead. A Moon Shaped Pool does nothing to stop that from being true.
A Moon Shaped Pool is available on a variety of streaming services.
There's a good argument to be made that James Blake is the single most influential musician of the 2010s on both underground and overground music. He wasn't the first person to create what became known as "alt-R&B" -- early Jamie Woon and How to Dress Well slightly predated his breakthrough, and the first Frank Ocean and Weeknd mixtapes quickly followed it -- but the release of his self-titled debut album really feels like the moment it all took off. It quickly became the go-to sound for several acts -- new ones and pre-existing ones -- across a massive musical spectrum. It's hard to imagine indie records like Rhye's Woman and Autre Ne Veut's Anxiety, psuedo-indie records like SOHN's Tremors and Jack Garratt's Phase, or massive pop records like Drake's Take Care and Beyonce's self-titled sounding quite the same way without James Blake. It felt like a triumphant win for James when he appeared two weeks ago on Beyonce's newest record, and it only makes sense that he'd pick the following week to drop his own new album. Considering that it was a surprise release and sent the internet into a frenzy (like Beyonce's and other major pop albums), it felt even more like it was instantly his most high-profile release yet.
The Colour In Anything is his third album, following that self-titled debut and 2013's Overgrown. It's not as groundbreaking as his debut or as experimental as Overgrown, but if it doesn't feel radical at all to you, that's only because James helped establish this sound as the new norm. It does feel more consistently accessible than its two predecessors, but that might just be because he's honing on the things he's best at. A lot of these songs follow a formula that pulls both from the pop sensibilities he perfected on "Retrograde" and the type of repetition he perfected on "The Wilhelm Scream." His dance music side and his singer/songwriter side also come together better than ever before. Often his albums would have some songs embracing the former and others embracing the latter, but this time they're usually both happening at once. "I Hope My Life" is a pure display of emotion from James vocally, but it's also the album's most head-knocking dancefloor jam. Those sounds cross paths in similar ways on "Choose Me," "Noise Above Our Heads," "Always," and a handful of other moments. James is increasingly coming into his own as a singer, though the album's most stunning vocal performance comes from its only guest: past collaborator and Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon (on "I Need A Forest Fire"). As you may have quickly noticed, it's a long album, with 17 songs and a running time that's almost twice as long as either of its two predecessors. It's consistently great though, and worth the time it takes to unpack.
Post-hardcore supergroup Head Wound City formed just over a decade ago with the kind of lineup people dream up: Blood Brothers members Jordan Blilie and Cody Votolato, The Locust members Justin Pearson and Gabe Serbian, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner. They released one self-titled EP in 2005, played one show that same year, and that was it. Then in 2014 they got back together for their second show ever, which turned into a fully-fledged reunion with actual touring and now their first full-length album. Given the lineup, you can pretty much guess what you're getting into with A New Wave of Violence. It gives a resounding "pshhh" to anyone who ever said spastic hardcore, art punk and prog-metal can't exist within the same two-minute song. The only bands you could really compare this to are, well, The Locust and The Blood Brothers. (Okay, and Circle Takes the Square and Refused and some other stuff, but you get the point.) Even if those two bands are the closer reference points, and even if I really have no idea which band member is responsible for which sounds, I assume Nick Zinner's contributions are crucial too. As the most famous band member by far, it's awesome to hear him playing such antisocial stuff. It's a reminder that -- as Rolling Stone also just said -- YYYs were very much a punk band at first, and that Nick is an experimental musician too. If you're doing a "Where Are They Now?" for early 2000s NYC post-punk musicians, it's pretty amazing that you can say "in one of the craziest hardcore bands" for Nick Zinner.
(Soundcloud via Pitchfork)
It was easy to see why Chance the Rapper was gonna take off after dropping Acid Rap. It was memorable, quirky, clearly full of talent, and had some obvious influences but didn't sound quite like any of them. As he became actually famous, he focused on eccentric side projects rather than his own solo material, but the followup to Acid Rap is finally here. It comes on the heels of Chance's show-stopping verse on the gospel-influenced opener of Kanye's new album The Life of Pablo, and that song ("Ultralight Baeam") ends up looking like the catalyst for this album. It seems probable that "Ultralight Beam" came from the same sessions as Coloring Book, and both Kanye and another "Ultralight Beam" contributor, gospel musician Kirk Franklin, appear on this. (As does a gospel choir on several songs.) If you liked the Kanye/Chance songwriting partnership of that song, you're gonna find a lot to love about this mixtape. The majority of it is that kind of gospel-rap, but it's also got a handful of other sounds and a pretty diverse cast of guests. Future, Young Thug and Jeremih all show up to make the sounds only they know how to make. Jay Electronica appears to remind us he's still got it (and still needs to drop an album). Past collaborator Justin Bieber is here for some reason. The song with Jeremih ("Summer Friends") has someone doing a pretty solid Bon Iver impression (more of Kanye's influence?), the song with Young Thug ("Mixtape") is the closest Chance comes to trap, the one with the Biebs ("Juke Jam") is the closest he comes to downtempo R&B. The funky "All Night" is the one true dancefloor mover. Chance hops between these sounds with ease, and like he did on Acid Rap, comes out with a project that truly works best as a start-to-finish album. He'll still insist on calling it a mixtape, but at least he found a way to make it eligible for the Grammys.